A couple of nights ago, I was reading the first few pages of a book I’d downloaded as a sample onto my Kindle. It’s one of the latest best-selling psychological thrillers, and I was trying decide whether to read the whole thing. But when I came upon the following sentence, I knew immediately that, no, this book wasn’t for me.
She was a marvellous cook, for example, after all the gourmet cuisine courses I made sure she attended.
So maybe you’re scratching your head and asking, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ or maybe you’re thinking that I’m going to say something about it being sexist. Well, I’m not – that’s fine. The narrator is a murderous husband with a very sexist attitude towards his wife.
No, the thing that gave me pause when I read that sentence was the sheer clumsiness of the writer. It’s part of a long passage of narrated exposition, in which she’s telling, not showing, details of their relationship—and in a very heavy-handed way. There’s no nuance, no subtlety. It hits you like a sledgehammer. And this is the fourth super best-selling psycho thriller that I’ve come across in a row that has had issues of, I suppose, heavy-handedness. Writing down to the reader, possibly on purpose to garner a larger readership. The plots these writers come up with may be fiendishly clever, but they obviously don’t expect their readers to be.
So what’s this got to do with writing erotica?
Let’s rewind a few months to the beginning of the summer. I was lucky enough to have lunch, on a sunny day in July, with Remittance Girl, who’s a fascinating and charming dining companion in equal measure. One of the first things she did, as I tucked into a giant Wiener schnitzel and a glass of Côtes du Rhône, was ask me why I wrote erotica and what I hoped to achieve. I answered: to entertain people, to make money, to have a bestseller, to see someone reading a book I wrote on the underground…
And I meant it then. However, in the space of a few short months, things have changed.
After talking to RG and having many, many conversations on writing erotica with my close friend Malin James, I’ve come to realise that my glib answer that day was not why I write at all. Not these days, anyway. Yes, I started writing erotica, chasing the market and penning what I thought readers wanted – which is pretty much what you have to do to get them reading you on trains and buses and planes. Now, however, I’m thrilled that my two thirds of a schlocky vampire trilogy has disappeared since its publisher went under. (Although there’s still plenty more on my backlist that I’d rather you didn’t see.) Because, the way I’m writing and what I want to write is changing.
When I stumbled across that bombastic piece of exposition the other night, my thoughts finally crystallized.
No, I don’t want to write for the bestseller market. Because you can’t afford subtlety and nuance if you want to sell a million books. You can’t write characters with less attractive facets. You can’t write strange, or repulsive, or different. If you want a bestseller in erotica or romance, your leading man needs to be ripped. I hate writing about alpha males with muscles. They’re simply not attractive to me – in real life or in fiction. Your heroine needs to be a little quirky, but not too much. I hate quirky. The thought of writing a quirky heroine actually makes me feel physically sick. And I don’t want to be castigated by readers because, god forbid, my characters don’t use condoms, smoke cigarettes and drink industrial quantities of vodka. Yes, believe me, I have been. Only now I want to write about people who do far worse—and more interesting—things than that.
I’ve reached a stage where I want to write about people who are actually fascinating to me. As a writer, you spend a lot of time in your characters’ company. And I don’t care to hang out with the sort of bland stereotypes that people the bestsellers of erotica or any other popular genre. And, moreover, I’m pretty rubbish at writing them. The heroine of my current fantasy BDSM series was supposed to be the perfect submissive. But she’s not. She came out fully formed and can’t submit to save her life. Her Dom and I have spent the duration of ten monthly episodes, so far, trying to get her to submit and we’ve both failed! And the series is a hell of a lot more interesting for it, thank goodness.
Perhaps admitting that I can’t control my characters doesn’t sound like progression as a writer. But I would argue that it is. These characters are actual people rather than cardboard cut-outs. Last week, I wrote a short for a very specific super-sexy submission call. But no one told the characters in the story about the sub call and they behaved just the way they wanted to. Despite being massively over-stretched by my day job and other writing commitments, this story extruded itself from my brain, the way it wanted to be, rather than how the call might have wanted it. Whether it will make the cut, I’ll have to wait and see, but my middle-aged, bereaved, pregnant heroine won’t care either way. She has other things to worry about!
So, this brings me full circle to the perennial question: do you write for the market or do you write for yourself? My answer to that question has changed, irrevocably now. I don’t want to confine myself to the tired tropes required for mass market success. And for me, that signifies growth as a writer. I don’t know where this new imperative will lead, but I’m excited and I’m happy about it.
I couldn’t agree more, Tamsin. I am fortunate that I don’t rely on writing for a living, so I am able to write the stories I want to write. Some of the early reviews I received, which were usually badly constructed and with poor spelling, criticised my books because I dared to allow characters who were flawed, and it used to bother me. But now I shrug it off. One reviewer reduced my star rating because one of my characters was unfaithful, using the phrase “cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater”! Now, however, I don’t let it bother me and continue to write as I wish, rather than in a formulaic manner to appeal to a mass market. I know that I am not a great writer, but that does not bother me. But I like to think that I write books that I would like to read, and I am satisfied with that. I create characters which appeal to me, and then allow them free rein to write their own stories. I am just the person who relates their tales. I am not criticising the readers who buy the best-sellers. They are entitled to their views about what makes a good story. It is just that it is unlikely to be one written by me.
Thanks for your comment, Rachel. I think it’s important that when, as a writer, you start to find your voice, you stick with it, rather than chasing the market.
” … chasing the market …”
I have never been good at this. Bluntly, I’m just not good at writing for the majority audience – a cold, hard, fact I’ve slowly come to terms with. My best pieces have always and without fail been ones that I’ve written for me, with no particular reader in-mind.
I think this is a critical and important realisation you’ve reached, Tamsin. And, personally? I can’t wait to see what you produce next.
Thanks for stopping by, Jane. You’re right – my writing’s far more honest when I forget about the market and just draw out what’s inside my head. But it took me time to understand my own voice and my own desires as a writer. I’m very excited about what’s coming next. Alchemy has been fabulous for me, but now I’m ready to stretch myself further. 🙂
Amazing thoughts and congratulations! I write for myself, and I encourage others to do so. In a way it is the “artist who copies Picasso” versus the artist who creates from within. You will always be compared to what you are imitating, and you will forever languish in a sea of similar works.
If you are doing this for commercial reasons, then write for the market. But remember, this is just like one of those jobs where your freedom gets limited by your boss, your boss being the top-100 list in the store on any given day. Somehow, I still feel the path to true recognition and success is by being yourself. It is a longer road, but it is one that is built upon what you love and the readers that love what you love. Enthusiasm shows and readers respond, and I have seen this in many reviews and responses to my reviews by writers and readers.
If you love something passionately, I believe there are many people out there that share your passion – and that market exists. No matter how small the niche is for what you love, there is a market.
In a world with perfect communication, everyone could instantly connect with their niche audience, write what they love, and be successful. Even if the audience didn’t exist, you could pull in enough readers from similar niches and build your market. In a world with censorship, markets where we can’t advertise, limitations on search, and other silly impediments to selling – we get what we have today.
Someday I hope this improves, where the barriers built by social media and stores go away, and readers who are looking for us can find us instantly and buy directly from us.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment – and you’re absolutely right, there is a market for every writer, if only we could find the way to connect to it.